At least 21 insurgents and 11 members of the security forces were yesterday killed in Myanmar’s Rakhine State when militants staged a major coordinated attack on 24 police posts and an army base, the military said.
The fighting — which had still not ended in some areas — marked a major escalation in a simmering conflict in the northwestern state since October last year, when similar attacks prompted a big military sweep beset by allegations of serious rights abuses.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army — a group previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, or “Faith Movement,” which instigated the October attacks — claimed responsibility for the early-morning offensive and warned of more attacks.
The treatment of approximately 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya has emerged as majority Buddhist Myanmar’s most contentious human rights issue as it makes a transition from decades of harsh military rule.
It now appears to have spawned a potent insurgency.
The situation in the state deteriorated earlier this month when security forces began a new “clearance operation” in a remote mountain area.
The army said that one soldier, 10 policemen and 21 insurgents had been killed in the attacks.
Two military sources contacted by reporters said there might be more deaths.
“The extremist Bengali insurgents attacked a police station in Maungdaw region in northern Rakhine State with a handmade bomb explosive [sic] and held coordinated attacks on several police posts at 1am,” a news team affiliated with the office of Burmese State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi said in a statement, using the derogatory term “Bengali” to refer to Rohingya.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship and are seen by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite claiming roots in the region that go back centuries, with communities marginalized and occasionally subjected to communal violence.
The military counteroffensive in October resulted in about 87,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, where they joined many others who have fled from Myanmar over the past two decades or more.
The UN said Burmese security forces likely committed crimes against humanity in the offensive that began in October.
The government news team listed 24 police posts that had come under attack, saying that police and the military were continuing to fight the insurgents.
About 150 Rohingya attackers had attempted to break into a military base, prompting the army to fight back, it added.
“They were planning to attack because we have found their camps, the caves and the bombs and masks inside the caves,” Myanmar Police Force spokesman Colonel Myo Thu Soe said, referring to recent discoveries of what the government described as militant training camps.
Military sources in Rakhine State told reporters that they estimated the number of insurgents in the offensive was five times that of the October attacks, with about 1,000 fighters likely to have taken part.
The militant group was formed by Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia after a bout of serious communal violence in 2012, according to the International Crisis Group.
Its leader, Ata Ullah, has said hundreds of young Rohingya men have joined the group, which claims to be waging a legitimate defense against the army and for human rights.
“We have been taking our defensive actions against the Burmese marauding forces in more than 25 different places across the region. More soon,” the group in a statement on a Twitter account believed to be linked to it.
Yesterday’s attack encompassed both Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in the remote northern part of the state — a much wider area compared with October.
Over the past several months the government has accused the insurgents of instigating a campaign of terror against village leaders and killing government informers, disrupting government information networks.
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